Orson F. Whitney: Apostle, Writer, Advocate for Heavenly Mother (Pt 2)

by Martin Pulido


The “A Mother Here Art and Poetry Contest” is looking for 2-dimensional visual arts pieces and poems that portray Heavenly Mother. The contest will accept entries up until March 4, 2014, and $2200 in prizes will be awarded when the best entries are announced on May 11, 2014. For more details, visit www.amotherhere.com. The contest is being sponsored by Exponent II, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, Peculiar Pages, LDS WAVE, and Segullah.

Whitney’s Heavenly Mother Writings.There are roughly 40 published instances where Orson F. Whitney discussed or mentioned Heavenly Mother. She was touched upon only briefly in his literary works (only addressed in Elias and his early poem “What is Life?”), but found Her way throughout his sermons, lectures, addresses during General Conference, and other writings. Below, I will attempt to portray Whitney’s thoughts on Heavenly Mother thematically, and to only a meager extent chronologically.

The first recorded instances were in 1882, when Whitney served as editor of the Millennial Star in England during his second mission. Whitney was just getting to the point where his voice was being heard from frequently in the LDS press. In the June and July 1882 issues of the Mormon periodical The Contributor, Whitney wrote two articles that consecutively discussed the common celestial parentage of human beings.1 That same year he wrote a poem, “What is Life?” dedicated to President Joseph F. Smith, which playfully explored the opposites portrayed in Mormon religious themes, including the “plan of salvation”:

“Son of a God! ‘mid scenes celestial,
Fellst thou from freedom to be free?
Or, hoping rise of endless raptures,
For time renounced Eternity?”2

In the fifth stanza, Whitney notes that the glorious, celestial realms are:

“Where Father, Mother, friends, forsaken–
Till time their “hundred fold” restore–
Await the welcome of thy coming
When time and trial are no more?”3

Life was a period of existence where one was isolated from one’s heavenly kindred, including one’s Heavenly Mother and Father. President Joseph F. Smith wrote to Whitney regarding his poem and heartily endorsed what he had written there. He told Whitney that in life, men and women are “weighed in the balance, in the exercise of the divine attributes, godlike powers and free agency with which we are endowed; whereby, after descending below all things, Christ-like, we might ascend above all things, and become like our Father, Mother, and Elder Brother, Almighty and Eternal!”4


Whitney was proud of the rather exotic Mormon doctrine. From the pulpit, he expressed his conviction that the famous Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker (1810 – 1860) gained his ideas regarding a heavenly mother from Mormons. He speculated that Parker may have picked up the idea from a hymnal left out by a little Mormon servant girl in the household. Whitney lamented that Parker’s prayer to both Father and Mother was acclaimed by the public as something wonderful, but Snow’s “Invocation” was left out of the limelight because she was a Mormon.5 Nothing good could come out of Deseret.

After returning from his mission to England, Whitney observed in the Contributor article, “What is Education?”, that the divine image rests in human beings, such that they possess all the divine attributes “in a latent or partly developed state, which have, by expansion and development, exalted our eternal Parents from manhood and womanhood to Godhood, and are capable in similar manner upon the same conditions, of raising their offspring to a like lofty level.”6

Whitney was aware that there were some problems in suggesting all humans possessed the same strengths. After all, each person seemed pretty divergent from his neighbor in terms of his deficiencies and talents. What we experienced was not an illusion, but Whitney urged that we not be deterred in the recognition of our common divine heritage by comparison. He claimed that no son or daughter is deficient in those “elementary endowments which it is their natural right to inherit from a common Parentage, and that Parentage the embodiment of perfection.”7

Since both men and women were created in the image of God / the gods (Abraham 4:27), Whitney believed that we could reason backwards to comprehend the nature of deity. We could observe what was in the humanity to know what was in their Creator(s). From this, he argued that the divine image and “likeness, must of necessity involve and comprehend the male and female principles.”8 In a later sermon as a newly appointed Apostle, “Our Mother in Heaven His Theme,” Whitney asked of the Genesis 1:26 passage, “What is thus but a virtual recognition of the feminine principle as well as the masculine principle of Deity?”9

Whitney posited that this divine image present in humanity, with its gendered principles, including a definite corporeal aspect. This made it easy for him to conclude in an article in the Deseret Weekly that:

“When we consider God as a personage of tabernacle, as our Heavenly Father in whose image we are created, it is certainly reasonable to think of Him as a man; and of our mother in heaven as a woman. God made man and woman in His Image and they are His children, then men and women on the earth are in this respect like unto God, and are destined to become more like Him as they advance.”10

Man shared more in common with deity than possessing spirits; they also possessed bodies. In “The ‘Metropolitan’ and the ‘Mormons,'” Apostle Whitney expounded “That we have a Mother as well as a Father in eternity, ought not to surprise or shock any one who has faith in the Bible, which plainly declares that God made man in His own image, male and female; and that the Son of God—who was certainly in the form of man—was the express image and likeness of his Father’s person. ‘God is a spirit’—true; so also is man; but that proves nothing against the proposition that God as well as man has a body in which the spirit dwells.”11


But men and women weren’t the Gods’ painted portraits, akin in image to Them through some distant respect, but they belonged to the very divine species.12 Whitney further advanced the teachings in Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse, that the Gods themselves had once endured mortality like them for the sake of growth and exaltation: “there was a time when that being whom we now worship—that our eternal Father and Mother were once man and woman in mortality.”13

For Whitney, this belief made it easier to weather the storms of life. It made earth life a place to “advance from stage to stage of soul development, until [humans] become like their heavenly parents, the Eternal Father and Mother.”14 Whitney noted such in his earlier poem, “What is Life?”: “‘Tis Contrast sways unceasing sceptre / O’er vast appreciation’s realm; E’en Gods, through sacrifice descending, / Triumphant rise to overwhelm.”15 General authorities, including Spencer W. Kimball and Howard W. Hunter, have long quoted a statement attributed to Orson F. Whitney that speaks to this effect:

“No pain that we suffer … is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of … patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer … , especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God … and it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we [came] here to acquire and which will make us more like our Father and Mother in heaven.”16

But there was more to the belief that our Parents underwent our earthly hardships, than seeing it as an affirmation that trials were integral to the common process of divine soul building. It also created a trust that suffering is tolerable, even when one cannot understand the purpose for the suffering; even when it may not lead to soulbuilding. The Gods before, Christ too endured life’s greatest pains. They did not wish on mortals what they would not suffer themselves. With this knowledge, saints of all ages “could therefore gaze upon and endure with stoicism their afflictions even when tied to the stake to be burnt for their opinions, when immured in dungeons, dragged at the tails of horses, thrown to wild beasts, or set fire to and used as torches to light the imperial gardens of Rome.; crucified, sawn asunder, persecuted, loaded with calumny and opprobrium, subject to prescriptive and persecutive legislation.”17

The Divine Parents looked down upon their suffering children from heaven and expect them to learn to become exalted if they follow the proper course in mortality.18 And this involved living the principles of the gospel. During one of his “Saturday Night Thoughts” written for the Deseret Evening News, Whitney asserted that as human beings were begotten in spirit before flesh, they must be born again in the similtude of the prior begettings if they are to regain their Eternal Parents’ presence and become worthy to stand on the same plane as Them.19

But knowing that Parents were above and waiting for us took from death its sting. He admitted that: “Anything that causes the severance of tender ties is necessarily a sorrow to us in our weak mortal state. I wonder if there was not some sadness in our former life when we said good-bye to our eternal Father and Mother, whose children we were before this world was made. I wonder if there was not some sadness in our hearts when we bade them good-bye, to be shut out where we could not see their faces any more; to be separated from our brothers and sisters innumerable and the happy scenes of our childhood.”20 The flipside of this was the joy of reunion. The Apostle Paul was valiant until the end, “but when honorably released from his mission, he gave a cry of joy that he was going back to Father and Mother in heaven.”21 On another occasion he noted, “We part with parents and children, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters. We leave father and mother-but how long have they been father and mother to us? Perhaps for twenty-five, fifty, or sixty years. That is the full length of their parenthood. But what about the eternal Father and Mother? Have they no claim upon us? Why should we not return to them, and resume the relations of the previous life? This knowledge, that comes from the possession of the Spirit of God, takes from death its sting, and robs the grave of its victory.”22

Whitney thought all these expectations encompassed a sort of spiritual naturalism, an application of worldly experience to heavenly things, where the same sociality as below exists. In “Why I Am a Mormon,” Whitney put his position succinctly: “Mormonism tells us our home is in heaven, with our eternal Father and Mother, where our spirits were born; that earth is a school, and time a season of probation, in which our souls are tested and proven, weighed in the eternal balance, and by their mortal experience fitted and prepared, if found worthy, for higher and better things beyond.”23 For Whitney, this was easy to accept:

“Human parents expect their children to grow to their stature. Why should not our heavenly parents, the Father and Mother of our spirits, expect their sons and daughters to become like Them? Was it not for this that they sent us forth from our celestial home, their immediate presence, and placed us here in this great Agricultural college, the Earth, where we might be made perfect, even as they are perfect?”24 On another occasion he asserted that the Latter-day Saints “maintain that it is no more philosophical for the child of earthly parents to develop in a man or woman of full stature, than for the offspring of God, male and female, to become, by development, by education, like the Father and the Mother in heaven.”25


Beyond the general value this teaching had for helping the saints cope with the evils experienced in mortality, he taught that our Heavenly Mother strengthened the female community, providing them with an ideal or end to which they could strive to become.26 Such claims were best advanced in Whitney’s Elias: An Epic of the Ages, in which he declares of women:

“O thou, of beauty, loveliest form and phase!
Kindler and keeper of the quenchless flame!
Partner and peer of human majesty!
Sharing with him life’s dual sovereignty,
Well canst thou wait for thrones and diadems.
Queen of the future, Eve of coming worlds,
Mother of spirits that shall people stars,
And hail thee empress of a universe!”27

Upon women was also a solemn duty to raise the spirits of Heavenly Parents. In “Woman’s Work and Mormonism,” Whitney presses his adolescent female readership to recognize that “resting upon [them] is a portion of the mission of that great mother organization, that mighty parent out of which your own strong, healthful, radiant association may be said to have come—a mission to watch over the welfare of the daughters of Zion, to train in truth and virtue the rising generation of your sisters throughout the Church.”28


It also encourages man and woman to build relationships with one another. Pursuing the “proper way” leads men and women, different as they are, towards each other. In another passage within Elias, Whitney writes,

“The space that parts the lower from the higher,
Spanned by development of son to Sire,
Of daughter unto Mother’s high estate,
Where man and woman are inseparate.”29

Looking at these many statements as a whole, there is no doubt that Heavenly Mother and women’s issues in general (Whitney being a suffragist) were of great importance to the Mormon apostle. His discourse on Heavenly Mother may not seem to us as novel now, and his points are often repetitive, even if well articulated. That being said, Whitney was keenly aware of the practical “pay-off” of the belief in the minds of the saints, seeing it as helping with: understanding the nature of God, understanding the nature of men and women’s relationship to God and to one another, coping with the existential problem of evil, making greater sense of the purpose of earthly life, elevating the role of women, drawing huge importance to the rearing of children, and giving women an ideal to strive for. No church leader before or since has given so much detail to that part of the discussion. While Whitney’s description of women’s ideal end may not appeal to the Mormon female community today, he at least saw the importance of illustrating that ideal to some extent. When Gods were embodied and possessed gender, it was important to not only describe the Father, but the Mother also.


1. Whitney, Orson F. “Man’s Origin and Destiny.” The Contibutor 3 (no. 9, June 1882); Whitney, “Parental Duty.” The Contributor 3 (no. 10, July 1882).
2. Whitney, Orson F. “What is Life?” The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star 44 (no. 9, November 6, 1882), 713.
3. Whitney, “What is Life?”, 713.
4. Smith, Joseph F. “Extract from a Letter.” The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star 44 (no. 9, November 6, 1882), 712.
5. Whitney, Orson F. “Sunday Services.” Deseret News 37 (no. 25, July 4, 1888), 7; Whitney, “Discourse by Bishop O. F. Whitney.” The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star 50 (no. 32, August 6, 1888), 499.
6. Whitney, Orson F. “What is Education?” The Contributor 6 (no. 9, June 19, 1885); see also Whitney, Orson F. “Latter-day Saint Ideals and Institutions 1.” Improvement Era 30 (August 1927), 10.
7. Whitney, “What is Education?” Emphasis my own.
8. Whitney, Orson F. “Bishop O. F. Whitney.” Woman’s Exponent 24 (no. 2, May 12, 1895), 9; see also Whitney, Orson F. “The Day of Rest.” Liahona: The Elders’ Journal 7 (no. 33, February 5, 1910), 528; Whitney, Orson F. Conference Report, April 1920 (Afternoon Session), 119; Whitney, Orson F. Conference Report, October 1928 (Second Day–Morning Meeting), 62.
9. “Our Mother in Heaven His Theme.” Deseret Evenings News (July 16, 1906), 5.
10. Whitney, Orson F. “Bishop Orson F. Whitney.” The Deseret Weekly 40 (no. 19, May 3, 1890), 634.
11. Whitney, Orson F. “The ‘Metropolitan’ and the ‘Mormons.'” Liahona: The Elders’ Journal 15 (no. 16, October 16, 1917), 244.
12. Whitney, Orson F. Conference Report, October 1907 (Afternoon Session), 50.
13. Whitney, “Bishop O. F. Whitney,” 9.
14. Whitney, Orson F. “Elect of Elohim: The Path to Perfection.” Improvement Era 24 (March 1921), 5. See also Whitney, Orson F. “Salvation and Exaltation.” Liahona: The Elders’ Journal 20 (no. 19, March 13, 1923), 372. These statements would be reprinted in Whitney’s tract, “The Way, the Truth and the Life,” while he was President of the European Mission.
15. Whitney, “What is Life?”, 713.
16. I have not yet located the original statement attributed to Whitney. The style of the writing definitely fits Whitney, and the quote has been attributed to him since the late 1970’s. For examples, see Adney Y. Komatsu’s October 1979 General Conference address. “After Much Tribulation Come the Blessings.” Ensign (November 1979), 68. Komatsu uses the same quote in the April 1987 General Conference. See “Looking to the Savior.” Ensign (May 1987), 78. See also Hunter, Howard W. “The Opening and Closing of Doors.” Ensign (November 1987), 54; Kimball, Spencer W. Faith Precedes the Miracle, 98; Marshall, Elaine S. “Lessons on Healing.” Ensign (April 2004), 57; “Lesson 32: I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1996).
17. Whitney, “Bishop Orson F. Whitney”, 634.
18. Whitney, Orson F. “The Three Great Teachers.” Collected Discourses 5, 431.
19. Whitney, Orson F. Saturday Night Thoughts, 258-259 (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News 1921).
20. Whitney, Orson F. “Death.” Young Woman’s Journal 27 (no. 4, April 1916), 201.
21. Whitney, “Death,” 202.
22. Whitney, Orson F. “We Walk by Faith.” Improvement Era 19 (no. 5, May 1916), 7.
23. Whitney, Orson F. “Why I am a Mormon.” The Contributor 8 (January 1887), 3.
24. Whitney, Orson F. “The School of Life.” The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star 67 (June 4, 1905).
25. Whitney, Orson F. “Joseph Smith and Education.” Liahona: The Elders’ Journal 9 (no. 26, November 20, 1910), 412.
26. Whitney, Orson F. “Discourse by O. F. Whitney.” The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star (no. 3, January 17, 1895), 34.
27. Whitney, Orson F. Elias: An Epic of the Ages, 5 (Canto 1.117-124).
28. Whitney, Orson F. “Woman’s Work and Mormonism.” Young Woman’s Journal 17 (no. 7, July 1906), 295-296.
29. Whitney, Orson F. Elias: An Epic of the Ages, 100. Part of “The Arcana of the Infinite.”


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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5 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Wow! What a terrific essay, Martin. I loved reading these things that Whitney said about Heavenly Mother, and how I wish that church leaders today would speak about Her with this kind of interest and confidence. Heavenly Mother is a concept that is uniquely Mormon and (I think) empowering for women. It has so much potential — I hope someday more Mormons feel freer to embrace Her and speak about Her.

    I loved this line: “When Gods were embodied and possessed gender, it was important to not only describe the Father, but the Mother also.” Amen.

  2. Thanks, Caroline! I fear this post was too pedantic for most to bear with, but I think it’s interesting to look at someone like Whitney who really constantly incorporating Heavenly Mother into his religious thought. He gave sermons with her exclusively as the topic or as one of the main topics. And he had no problem addressing the criticisms of his non-Mormon peers. I think a lot of us may blush to bring up our uniquely Mormon beliefs, trying so eagerly to show we “fit in” and are normal. We’ve been “weird” so long, I think many are tired of being a peculiar people. There’s probably some good things to that, but I think there’s a danger with making our belief system look irrelevant if it’s just more of the same. I’d rather stand strong on some radical beliefs instead of waffle on them (downplay the King Follett discourse, make god’s body seem like an irrelevant ornamentation that follows him around, minimalize Mormon deification, etc.).

  3. April says:

    I thought the part about how proud Whitney was of the unique doctrine of Heavenly Mother, and how Mormons might influence others to believe in Her, was interesting. Hinckley was prophet during my young adulthood, and he sometimes seemed almost embarrassed about the doctrine:

    DR: So with you, God has a physical body?

    Gordon B. Hinckley: He’s an individual – as is His Son, Jesus Christ.

    DR: And God has a wife?

    Gordon B. Hinckley: I don’t know, but I suppose so. As we have a Father I assume we have a mother.

    DR: I understood your teachings said that God has a wife?

    Gordon B. Hinckley: Yes. Well we…. Yes we have a mother in heaven. We believe so. We’re sons and daughters of God. http://www.lds-mormon.com/hinckley.shtml

  4. @April: President Hinckley was the Prophet during my teenage years – young adulthood as well. I think many of us were underwhelmed (even concerned) by his public dialogue/interviews. I wouldn’t judge the man’s convictions solely based on these interviews, but it did make us seem–at the least–less eager to share our unique beliefs. You can understand why a Prophet when engaging in such a public forum, where many might have little exposure to Mormonism (and he had so little time to explain in details our beliefs), might go for a “milk before the meat” approach, and try to avoid getting into the deeper doctrines. He definitely did so on the KFD, deification, divine embodiment, and heavenly mother. I haven’t looked, but how have he and other church leaders responded to other common LDS beliefs that are equally heretical, such as the uncreated nature of human personalities–not all Mormons believe this, including myself, but it is a common LDS belief–or the uncreated nature of matter.

    As for Whitney, he was actually caught up in a public squabble regarding Heavenly Mother, which I will have to post on sometime. Perhaps in the next post?

  5. Tessa says:

    I enjoyed this post very much. Orson is my great-great grandfather, and I don’t know too terribly much about him other than he was an apostle and he had an abiding love for the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. My grandmother has a first edition book of Emerson’s essays with Orson’s Signature inscribed on the inside of the front cover, and it was a pocket-sized book he would carry with him everywhere. Orson had been deceased for quite some time before my grandfather was born, and so he never interacted with him at all, and no stories from his own father about Orson. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get in touch with living relatives (my grandfather was an only child) to get more stories about him but just don’t know where to start. Thank you for your research and your regard for this great man.

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